From Hard Drives to Clouds: A Rapid History of Data Storage Advancements
We’ve come a long way from the days of using punch cards to record information. Find out everything you need to know about the history of data storage, all the way up to the latest cloud storage solutions.
Bill Holler photo

Bill Holler

CEO at Cert-Trace®

Storing data is an essential part of any business in the 21st Century because data and documentation are how we make decisions, record information and set out contracts and structures. 

Today, cloud data storage is the most secure and efficient way to store your data, but as technology has changed over the years, there have been many alternatives that pre-dated the move to the cloud.

How much do you know about the history of data storage? From punch cards to floppy discs, here’s everything you need to know.

The data storage evolution picture

The history of data storage

Punch card (18th Century)

The 18th Century might have been a long time before the creation of cloud storage, but this is where the seeds were first sown with the creation of punch cards by Basile Bouchon in France. 

As you can imagine, this was a very basic form of data storage, using the weaving patterns of a loom with a loop of paper to create hole punches to signify the data needing to be or communicated – usually instructions for equipment at this stage.

Over time this system began to become slightly more sophisticated, with ticker tape invented by Alexander Bain in 1846 and used for telegraphs well into the 20th Century (they were even still being used by the 2004 US Presidential election). 

IBM was an early pioneer in how punch cards could be used in primitive computers for data processing, building on work by Charles Babbage and Herman Hollerith in the 19th Century to create the Analytical Engine, which used punch cards to store data.

Recorded sound (19th Century)

The creation of the phonograph by Thomas Edison opened up a new way of storing data. His initial recorded words of ‘Mary had a little lamb’ might not have seemed of great importance in terms of content, but as technology advanced, the ability to record data through sound – and later vision – would go on to have huge implications. 

Magnetic storage (20th Century)

The history of data storage took a huge leap forward in 1951 when J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly invented the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC). It took magnetic tape technology that had been invented in 1898 and used it as an alternative to punch cards. 

In 1953, MIT bought the patent for donut-shaped magnets called Ferrite Cores and used them to create the Whirlwind computer for magnetic storage, which justified its name by being much quicker as well as more efficient than punch card computers.

Floppy discs and hard drives (20th Century)

We’ve mentioned IBM already and they would have an even bigger role to play in the history of data storage in the next few decades. In 1956 they created the IBM 350 computer disc storage unit which could store up to 3.75 MB of information. 

That might sound tiny now, but was a big deal in the 1950s, so much so that there was even an internal battle at IBM over it because it was (rightly) seen as a threat to their main business model of punch cards. 

In 1971 they introduced floppy discs using magnetic tape, which would go on to play a huge role in data storage over the next few decades.

These were initially 8 inches in size but easily portable and inexpensive to manufacture (albeit also easy to damage) which helped them become a widespread method for businesses to store and transfer data.

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CD-ROMs, SSDs and flash drives (20th Century)

As well as being easy to break, floppy discs also had limitations in terms of size, which led to them being superseded by optical CD-ROM technology. This was invented in the 1960s by James T Russel and created a decade later with funding from Sony who saw the potential for storage of media files.

They weren’t ideal for storage of data for businesses though, and by 2000 the flash drive had taken over, with USB sticks offering a combination of ease, portability and capacity.

For much larger storage needs, Solid State Drives (SSD) could be used too, sacrificing some portability for the ability to host entire databases.

Cloud storage (20th Century and beyond)

So when did we first start to see the ideas behind a service for cloud storage for business needs? The first cloud service concept dates back to the 1960s and ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) which was created by the US Department of Defense.

It used the TCP/IP protocol to create a network whereby data could be sent through packets, allowing people remotely to access data stored elsewhere, setting the foundations for both the internet and document sharing through cloud storage. 

IBM again had a big role to play in these developments when they created the Ethernet adapter card in 1982, providing faster and easier access to online storage, and by the 1990s the dot com bubble saw plenty of firms jostling to be the first cloud service provider. 

Document digitization became a much bigger industry with businesses springing up and offering online storage and backup services, though most were shortlived. The phrase ‘cloud computing’ was first used in 1997 by Ramnath Chellappa, professor of University of Texas.

2002 saw Amazon launch Amazon Web Services (AWS) as a public cloud service that would lead to the birth of cloud storage services for businesses in a big way.

Options like cloud-based document archiving began to become available from 2006 onwards with the S3 version of AWS, with Google following suit a few years later with Google Storage – which was superseded by Drive in 2012.

2008 saw the creation of Dropbox by students at MIT, inspired by the frustration of losing a flash drive full of important information.

Services like Dropbox and Google Drive were positioned for individual use but more and more providers began to target businesses, scaling up their offerings and working on new technologies like blockchain to boost security measures.

That is a brief history of data storage, taking us all the way from primitive punch cards to today’s sophisticated cloud storage solutions.

Why not get in touch with any questions to and find out how the cloud can help you?

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